Additions and updates for Chapter 2  The Psychology of Writing and Listening

This is a webpage providing updates and additions for Chapter 2  ‘The Psychology of Writing and Listening’ from the book Writing Audio Drama by Tim Crook, published by Routledge in 2023

Analysis of the research and writing into the psychology of writing and listening to radio plays by the BBC’s first Director of Drama Productions R E Jeffrey, how and why the first successful radio plays produced by the BBC dramatized events in darkness with people in trapped scenarios. These included Gertrude Jennings’ Five Birds in a Cage (people trapped in a London underground lift) and Richard Hughes’ Danger (people trapped down a coal mine in Wales), and Reginald Berkeley’s The Dweller in the Darkness where a ghost attacks and murders somebody at a séance when the lights go out.

Review and appreciation of The Comedy of Danger in Popular Wireless for February 1923

The Radio Times would not be published until much later in 1923 and the weekly periodical providing the most feature coverage of the BBC’s radio stations at the time was Popular Wireless originally set up in 1922 to cater for the very large number of people in wireless and radio societies devoted to building their own radio transmitters and receivers and communicating by Morse Code and speech as far as they were able to.

The magazine’s writer was called ‘Ariel’ and reported on ‘Behind the Scenes at 2LO during the recent broadcast drama.” 2LO was the call sign for the BBC’s London radio station.

‘Before the broadcasting of the radio drama “A Comedy of Danger,” listeners-in who suffered from neurasthenia were advised to switch off for twenty-five minutes as a “play was about to be performed of a Grand Guignol character.” Those who wished to listen were advised to switch off the lights, in order to get the right atmosphere.

The play, however, was produced in a brightly lit room, although the broadcast effects were very realistic and provided a real thrill for thousands of listeners.

I was one of few who watched the secret devices which produced the sounds of thunder and rushing water.

Mr. Whiteman, who was in charge, sat on the stone steps outside the studio door with the lines of the play and tele-phones on, to follow the action of the drama.

Just below the steps was a large table over which a sandpaper sheet was laid, and beside the table was a sieve containing thousands of lead shots. When the sieve was moved it produced the sound of rushing water, and the sandpaper, when scraped by a piece of wood, gave the effect of the mine being flooded. Near by was a large drum, similar to a water wheel, and over this was fixed a piece of American cloth. This device is known as the “wind machine” or, as the stage hands call it, a “breezer.”

I was fortunate enough to be near by when a gun was fired, and the noise in the studio was terrifying and made us all deaf for some time after.

Having described the effects I will briefly relate what was going on in the studio. The characters played by Joyce Kennedy, Kenneth Kent, and H.R. Hyneth had received special rehearsals and instructions from the author of the play, Mr. Richard Hughes, several days prior to the actual performance. Mr. Hughes assisted in the effects. The Gwalia Singers were singing two Welsh hymns outside the second door of the studio. They also called out during the performance, through glass lamp chimneys thus giving the hollow, far-away effect.

A “Grand Performance.”

The most amusing device to produce distant sound was the simple bucket, through which the author and another shouted giving the effect of voices coming from a distant quarter of the mine.

The artistes rushed backwards and forwards behind the microphone with their parts or scores in their hands. This continual movement was, of course, necessary and performed according to the noises.

The next morning I received a letter from Miss Ellen Terry, the great tragedienne, saying: “No greater performance have I ever heard which has produced such a thrill on an unseen audience. Another step forward has been taken by the B.B.C.”‘

Radiotorial for Popular Wireless February 1923- celebrating the achievement of A Comedy of Danger The historical significance of this editorial in the announcement and organisation of what appears to be the first British Radio Play competition.

The broadcasting of Mr. Richard Hughes’ play, “A Comedy of Danger,” opens up a new field of experiment for the B.B.C. But after listening to the play I could not help wondering if the field for Radio Drama was not rather restricted, and not as fertile as one would at first believe.

Mr Hughes’ play was successful because it was founded on an idea which lent itself admirably to the limitations of wireless. The correct atmosphere could only be obtained by sitting in the dark; in fact it was the only atmosphere in which one could really feel the dramatic potentialities of the theme Mr. Hughes had built his play on. Those three voices, supposedly the voices of a girl and two men trapped in a coal mine, issued from the loud speaker with terrifying reality, and the room being in darkness the effect was, to say the least of it, sepulchral in the extreme. But it “got over” in houses where listeners turn out the lights, and so obtain the atmosphere of being buried alive in a tomb ?

And how many situations can ingenious authors devise which will enable listeners to partly create the necessary theatrical atmosphere to partly create the necessary theatrical atmosphere- very necessary when a play is restricted to dialogue and “off-stage” effects ?

The problems is a fascinating one, and its solution by no means easy. On the face of it, it looks as though the number of Radio Dramas capable of “getting over” with the full effect of Mr. Hughes’ play will be rather limited; but the BBC and those who labour for them, are nothing if not ingenious, and it will be interesting to see how far this Radio Drama business can be carried with full success.

Adaptations from some of Edgar Allan Poe’s stories might prove suitable for Radio dramas; notably, the tales entitled “The Tell-Tale Heart” and “The fall of the House of Usher.”

The last story is rich in “off stage” effects; the moaning of the wind, the inglorious twanging of a guitar, the creaking of a coffin-lid; the clanging of the doors of the vault as the lady who was buried alive manages to force her way out, and lastly the excited shrieks of her brother and the bursting of the thunderstorm. Yes, that story is rich in Radio Grand Guignol situations; but the nerves of listeners-in must be considered!

Again, take that wonderful story be Morley Roberts, the story of “Billy Be Damsel.” With but few modifications that story would make a fine Radio play. It is mostly dialogue, and depends for its effect on the weird and terrifying experiences as related by a mad castaway sailor, picked up by a sailing ship.

And, doubtless, readers of “P.W.” can think of many good ideas for Radio plays. It would be interesting to see their efforts as Radio play-writing, so I will offer a Prize of £5 for the best Radio Drama idea sent to me, not later than February 25th. Address all MSS to the Editor, Popular Wireless, the Fleetway House, London E.C.4. I reserve the right to publish the plot of the play which wins the prize : the dramatic rights remain the author’s. THE EDITOR

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